When Dr. Elaine Aron introduced her research on high sensitivity to the world in the late 90’s, millions of people really recognized themselves for the first time. The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) now had validation for a lifetime of misunderstood traits. And those traits had an intrinsic origin: the Highly Sensitive Child (HSC).

Understandably, HSPs who were learning about their trait for the first time had a lot of processing to do. (Par for the course for HSPs.)

How did this new information explain their current, adult experiences of the world? And how in retrospect did it give perspective to their childhoods?

Even more importantly, how could this revelation help shape their lives going forward?

With the 1997 publication of The Highly Sensitive Person as a benchmark, observation and study of high sensitivity from birth was now possible. And the Highly Sensitive Child could now have even more relevance to both understanding and development of the highly sensitive adult.

What is an HSP?

High sensitivity is a temperament, not a defect. Found in 15-20% of the population, including over 100 other species, this trait is the result of a more responsive and reactive nervous system.

In general, the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is more neurologically “on” than less sensitive people. The threshold for sensory recognition, for example, is lower. And emotional responsiveness is quicker and deeper.

Other defining characteristics of high sensitivity are depth of processing and propensity for overwhelm.

These qualities all make sense in the context of high neurological alertness resulting from unique brain physiology.

(You can read more about high sensitivity and how to know if you are an HSP here.)

But how accurately do the qualities of high sensitivity described for adults translate to the HSC (and vice versa)? Are their presentations amplified or dampened by the formative stages of brain development and the interplay of nature and nurture? Good questions!

Recognizing the Highly Sensitive Child

Although high sensitivity has core qualities, consolidated in the acronym DOES, it exists on a spectrum, in both physiology and expression.

And, when talking about children with high sensitivity, we have to consider the expected thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of the formative and teen years. 

What the adult HSP may struggle with internally, the HSC may perform in full view of any willing audience. Some credit goes to high sensitivity and some, for example, to the throes of the terrible twos.

Here are 8 traits and habits of Highly Sensitive Children:

  1. HSCs have strong emotional reactions to stimuli.

    Given the basic characteristics of high sensitivity, of course HSCs will have strong emotional reactions to just about everything.

    If you are an adult HSP, you know what it’s like to perceive and feel everything. Everything. A sunset isn’t just a sunset. Friendship with an animal isn’t just “having a pet.” Toes-in-the-sand isn’t just a trip to the beach.

    While others around her are moving seamlessly through the must-do’s of an experience, the HSC is absorbing…feeling…processing.

    And, sadly, it’s this strong emotional reaction – the offspring of perceiving all that life puts before her – that labels and often alienates her.

    For every Highly Sensitive Person in the world, there is a lifetime of hearing, “You’re too sensitive.”
  2. HSCs experience emotional extremes.

    Emotionally speaking, Highly Sensitive Children’s feelings tend to be all-or-nothing. HSC tend to feel, for example, ecstatic or enraged, on-point or flummoxed.

    Remember that HSCs are wired to perceive seemingly everything…and to deep-dive process it all. Their joy can be boundless, their disappointment devastating.
  3. HSCs are highly aware of subtle changes in their environment.

    The very nature of sensitivity is the brain’s low threshold for awareness.

    Those who are highly sensitive have brains that don’t shut off. They’re always processing, always picking up even the most subtle pieces of information to take with them on their deep processing dives.

    That picture is crooked.
    My crayons are out of order. Who was using them?
    That breeze is making me cold.
    Somebody is upset.
    Why did you say “this” instead of “that”?
    Did you see that cloud turn into a dragon?

    Children with high sensitivity could write volumes of books about the details they experience – while the rest of the world doesn’t even notice.
  4. HSCs are keenly aware of others’ emotions and are deeply empathetic.

    The E in the DOES acronym of high sensitivity traits applies to Highly Sensitive Children, too.

    Like their sensitive adult versions, HSCs are sponges for the emotions of others.

    They will be the ones recognizing a classmate feeling down or an adult feeling frustrated. They can even exude almost saintlike compassion for people and animals who are suffering.

    The challenge they face is not yet having the cognitive ability to deal with the petri dish of emotions they absorb.
  5. HSCs are prone to meltdowns.

    As adults, we all experience people and situations that make us want to blow our tops. And, if we’re being honest here, we’ve all had episodes of failing Adulting 101.

    But, as a general rule, maturity teaches us self-containment, even when we’re highly stressed or upset. Learning to recognize, identify, and manage our emotions is, of course, the cornerstone of emotional intelligence.

    Children, however, don’t come out of the chute with a cognitive clue about emotions or what to do with them. So it is the task of good parenting to provide that guidance through a child’s formative, teen, and young-adult years.

    In the case of Highly Sensitive Children, who have extreme emotions as a baseline, “emotional eruptions” are more common than in non-HSCs. The intensity and constancy of their emotional experiences can simply be too much for them to process.
  6. HSCs are extremely sensitive to sensory stimulation.

    Itchy clothes, bright lights, loud noises, sudden movements, strong smells and flavors….Any extreme sensory stimulation can be triggering for the HSC.

    There are countless adaptations parents and teachers can make to ease the impact of sensory overstimulation such as light sensitivity in Highly Sensitive Children.
  7. HSCs are prone to perfectionism.

    Perfectionism in HSCs can be the result of their unfiltered, keen awareness of details in their environment, as well as their need for control.

    Pulling together all the tendencies of those who are highly sensitive, it makes sense that mistakes can register as disastrous.

    The Highly Sensitive Child instinctively doesn’t like being watched, evaluated, or corrected. So perfectionism is the natural alternative to that self-consciousness.

    It also prevents the implosion of his finely tuned world and the catastrophic emotions that would erupt as an aftershock. Everything neat and tidy. Everything in its place.
  8. HSCs can be highly imaginative and creative.

    One of the most natural and coveted gifts of high sensitivity is innate creativity.

    The HSC is likely to be the imaginative solution-finder, the colorful conversationalist, the budding artist or performer.

    And doesn’t it make sense that one so in-tune with his surroundings, so emotionally affected by them, would find external expression for his experience? That his easy ability to assimilate details could prove useful beyond mere perception?

    Study any creative – artist, musician, author, performer – and you will likely find yourself in the company of an HSP who started life as a Highly Sensitive Child.

Is the Highly Sensitive Child (HSC) a product of nature or nurture?

Most of us look back on our childhoods, laughing or lamenting at current traits and behaviors we swear were foretold long ago. 

The Broadway star who was always putting on plays for family and appreciative neighbors. 

The Ivy League scholar who was under the covers with a flashlight and book at bedtime.

The introvert who felt uncomfortable in large-group activities and preferred time with one or two close friends.

The 50-year-old who is still easily startled, similar to the way she was in childhood with loud noises and sudden movements.

Or the adult who struggles with emotional shutdowns in times of high stress, just as she had “meltdowns” when overwhelmed in her youth.

So many of our qualities and personality traits can be traced to our beginnings, lending credibility to the “nature” component of “nature-vs.-nurture” debates.

By the time we reach adulthood, we have (hopefully) refined the rough, experimental, often chaotic thoughts, movements, and behaviors of childhood. 

No more grocery-store tantrums when we can’t have Fruit Loops or a candy bar baiting us at the register.

No more screaming, “I hate you!” at the authority figure who dares to steer us in the direction of better choices.

We “fit into” the construct of societal expectations. We assume responsibility for ourselves and those who can’t take care of themselves.

(Again, we would hope.)

And yet, passing through predictable life stages en route to adulthood doesn’t mean the “nature” part of us completely morphs into our “nurtured” stories.

It also doesn’t mean that the environment in which we’re raised is mutually exclusive of our innate qualities. 

And it’s this “inter-influence” of nature and nurture that determines, in large part, the expression of sensitivity for the Highly Sensitive Child.

It’s also the predicate for future expression of sensitivity and overall well-being and success in the highly sensitive adult.

In other words, the pre-wiring for sensitivity is just that: a pre-wiring.

The pre-wiring comes with generalized attributes (like those mentioned earlier). And, the context of the HSC’s life is what modulates its ultimate expression.

So much so that the HSC’s ability to thrive is amplified or dampened by the support or lack of support in his environment.

This model, known as differential susceptibility, says: The Highly Sensitive Child who is raised in a negative, unsupportive environment will suffer more than a non-HSC raised in a similar environment. And the HSC raised in a positive, supportive environment will thrive more than a non-HSC raised in a similar environment.

In other words, high sensitivity is like a megaphone for the quality of a child’s physical, familial, social, and emotional environment. Good or bad, “more is more.”

Orchids and Dandelions

Pediatrician Thomas Boyce coined the term orchid and dandelion to describe the extremes of vulnerability and resilience in children.

Think of the dandelion. Always there, ready to do its dandelion life. Perky by sunrise, feeding the bees, eventually spreading its seeds on the exhale of a wish. It’s sturdy, resilient, self-reliant.

Now think of the orchid, that majestically orchestrated blossom that is almost too lovely to be real. It’s the object of horticultural aspirations and the bane of plant lovers not finessed in the subtle demands of this delicate species.

The orchid’s beauty comes at a price. It is sensitive to every subtlety in its environment – light, temperature, water, placement. And those who understand how to meet these tender needs are rewarded with a splendid show.

The dandelion child can easily be taken for granted because of her natural resilience and ability to land on her feet and productively navigate life.

The orchid child, on the other hand, is the ideal model for the differential susceptibility discussed earlier. 

If you embrace her sensitivity as a precious but vulnerable gift, she will treat the world to a vibrant explosion of confident contribution.

But if you treat her like a dandelion, she will drop her blossoms and struggle to be what she was created to be. 

The highly sensitive adult is a lifetime evolution of exponential sensory and emotional experiences, rooted in nature, shaped by nurture.

And the Highly Sensitive Child is the mystery that comes into this world.

Dr. Elayne Daniels is a psychologist, consultant, and international coach in the Boston area whose passion is to help people celebrate their High Sensitivity…and shine their light.

To read more about High Sensitivity, check out some blogs here.